© Denzil Green
Polenta is a dish made from cornmeal that is boiled into a thick, porridge-like consistency. You can serve hot scoops of it on a plate, or let it cool till it hardens, then slice it and recook it in baked dishes or by frying.
In the north of Italy, polenta is as much a part of daily living as pasta is in the south. In the Veneto region of northern Italy, they prefer polenta made out of white corn.
You can make it yourself, or buy it already made in tubes at the supermarket. It can be fiddly to make but the tubes are very expensive compared to the cost of making it yourself from cornmeal and water, and sometimes might taste a bit of the plastic they are in. You use coarsely-ground cornmeal that is more like sand (called “bramata” in Italian), rather than the really fine stuff that is more like flour.
Here are the standard proportions for making enough polenta for 4 people.
2 cups (12 oz / 350 g) of cornmeal
4 cups (32 oz / 1 litre) of boiling water
½ teaspoon of salt
To make polenta (exact recipes vary), you boil water in a copper pot and add the cornmeal in a slow stream, and then stir constantly for half an hour
Non-purist way: Get a separate pot (doesn’t need to be a non-stick one) going with boiling water. This pot of water is going to become the bottom of a “double-boiler” to cook the polenta with. If you have a double-boiler set whose top pot is non-stick, great. In lieu of a pot of boiling water, you can use one of those metal trivet-y things that go on top of stove burners to fake the bottom of a double-boiler. In the non-stick pot, bring the right amount of water for your polenta to a boil along with the salt. Add the cornmeal in a slow stream stirring with the vinyl whisk. When it’s all in, cover the non-stick pot, place this on top of whatever you are using as the “bottom” of the double-boiler, and let simmer for 45 minutes. Just give it a stir every so often.
If you want stiff polenta to slice up for other uses, pour the cooked polenta in a buttered loaf pan and set it in the fridge till it is hard. Then tip it over onto a sheet of waxed paper on a cutting board, and cut it either with a good serrated bread knife, or with unflavoured dental floss. Both will work to get you clean slices that don’t all crumble on you.
You can buy polenta making machines that do all the work for you, but it’s almost certainly not worth it unless you plan to make very often.
For the polenta meal, you can substitute coarsely ground yellow cornmeal, or hominy grits, or try using millet or buckwheat, as people used to do before the introduction of corn into Italy.
Per 35 g dry (1.25 oz / ¼ cup / 4 tablespoons)
Fat .9 g
Saturated .122 g
Cholesterol 0 mg
Carbohydrate 42.18 g
Fibre 4 g
Sugars .35 g
Protein 4.61 g
Potassium 88 mg
- 35 g dry (1.25 oz / ¼ cup / 4 tablespoons) dry polenta = 1 cup, cooked
- One pound / 450 g uncooked cornmeal = 2 ⅔ cups
- 1 cup uncooked cornmeal = 6 oz / 175g
You can make a batch of polenta slices, wrap each in plastic wrap, and freeze for up to a year.
Polentas were made long before the introduction of corn into European.
Yellow polentas were made from millet, and grey polentas made from buckwheat. Chestnut flour would also be used. “Rural uses of wild chestnuts include the original Italian polenta, a porridge which was made with chestnut meal before the introduction of maize from the New World…” Davidson, Alan. The Penguin Companion to Food. London: The Penguin Group, 2002. Page 198.
The Larousse Gastronomique gives these directions for polenta from chestnut flour:
“Polenta: This is obtained by throwing sieved chestnut flour into lightly-salted boiling water and mixing with a spatula until the paste no longer adheres to the sides of the cooking dish. Pour onto a floured cloth and cut into slices. These are either eaten as they are, with Broccio (Corsican cheese), grilled, or fried.” New Larousse Gastronomique. Paris: Librarie Larousse. English edition 1977. Page 217.
The substitution of these items for corn in the 1700s led, unfortunately, to outbreaks of pellagra (see entry on corn.)